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LTI in A+

Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) is a standard created by IMS Global Learning Consortium. It connects learners from learning management systems (LMS) to learning objects (such as exercises, visualizations, or e-books) hosted in external services, which are called Tool Providers (TP) in the LTI terminology. The LMS is called a Tool Consumer (TC). Many widely used learning management systems and content providers support the LTI standard. Learners may easily access different learning objects from the course site within the LMS without knowing which external service is really providing the content.

The LTI version 1.0 only defines the launch of the external tool, which basically logs the user into the system without an explicit log-in (the user is already logged into the LMS). The version 1.1 adds the Basic Outcomes Service that enables Tool Providers to also send grades back to the LMS. The A+ platform supports the LTI version 1.1 (as of A+ version 1.3, August 2018). (The LTI standard has also already released a newer version 1.3 and there is also the deprecated, architecturally different version 2.0.) The LTI 1.1 implementation in A+ follows the official standard from IMS Global. A+ does not implement all of the optional nor recommended LTI launch parameters and may also include some custom parameters used by other systems in the A+ family. Nonetheless, A+ should operate with any standards-compliant LTI 1.1 Tool Provider.

When a user launches an LTI service from an LMS, the user interacts directly with the Tool Provider. The LMS is only involved in preparing the launch parameters and potentially receives the grade of the submission if the TP sends it back to the LMS using the Basic Outcomes Service. The user does not submit his/her solution to the LMS. In normal A+ exercises, the user submits the solution to A+ and A+ uploads it to the exercise service for grading using the A+ protocol. LTI works differently; consequently, A+ has less control over the process and it can not keep track of the user’s activity as closely. Furthermore, normal A+ exercises enable A+ to store the contents of the submission (such as the submitted file) and the feedback, whereas they are not available to the LMS in LTI 1.1 exercises.

An LTI service is launched from the LMS by basically submitting a form in the LMS web page. The LTI launch parameters are defined in the form as hidden inputs. The form is posted to the launch URL of the Tool Provider, not the LMS. The TP launch page may be opened in a new browser window or in an iframe element within the LMS page, depending on the target of the HTML form. The launch parameters identify the user, role (Learner or Instructor), context (course), and learning object among other details.

Before an LMS may operate with a Tool Provider, the TP must allow access for the LMS by setting up a key and a secret. They are comparable to an account name and a password between the LMS and the TP and they are used for securing the communications between the LMS and the TP as well as restricting unauthorized access to the TP. LTI 1.1 uses the OAuth1 standard for securing the messages by signing them with the shared secret. Attackers can not forge valid signatures without knowing the secret.

Warning

The OAuth1 parameters in the LTI launch include a one-time use nonce value as well as a timestamp. If the user opens an LTI launch page and leaves it open for a long time without submitting the launch form, the nonce and timestamp will likely expire. In that case, the Tool Provider rejects the launch with an error. The user may gain a fresh nonce by refreshing the launch page in the LMS. The exact expiration time of the nonce depends on the Tool Provider.

Basic Outcomes Service

Basic Outcomes Service is the part of LTI that enables Tool Providers to send grades back to the LMS (i.e., A+). The LTI protocol supports only numeric grades 0.0–1.0 with no textual feedback. The grade is scaled to actual points based on the maximum points of the exercise in A+.

Basic Outcomes Service defines three operations: setting, reading, and deleting results. They are named replaceResult, readResult, and deleteResult, respectively. A typical Tool Provider probably sends a replaceResult request to the LMS when it has finished grading the student’s submission, which could take place soon after the the student has uploaded the submission to the TP or much later. The LTI specification does not require the TP to immediately send the results back to the LMS, hence it is possible in theory that the TP waits with the results and only sends one replaceResult request to the LMS after the student has submitted multiple times in a short time. In that case, A+ would not know that there have been multiple submissions and not just one. Furthermore, A+ does not know the exact time when the TP received the submission since the Basic Outcomes Service does not include a submission time field. Therefore, A+ uses the receiving time of the replaceResult request as the submission time.

A+ creates a new submission to the exercise for the submitting student every time a valid replaceResult request is received. That is to say, A+ stores the LTI exercise grade in a submission once the Tool Provider sends the grade back to A+. A+ does not overwrite existing submissions even when multiple replaceResult requests are received for the same student and exercise. Since the LTI protocol version 1.1 does not support any textual feedback in the Basic Outcomes Service, the submissions in A+ do not include any feedback; they only show the points of the submission. Depending on the TP, it may show information about the preceding submission(s) with more feedback to the student when he/she launches the service. Likewise, the contents of the submission, such as files uploaded by the student, are not visible in A+ since A+ never receives them.

A+ responds to readResult requests with the current best points of the student in the exercise. A+ has decided to not implement the delete operation so that no submission history is lost. Consequently, A+ responds to deleteResult requests with the “unsupported” message defined in the LTI specification.

Warning

LTI exercises do not currently support group submissions. Students may only submit as individuals. Group submissions could be implemented for LTI exercises in the future.

Warning

A submission to an LTI exercise can not be sent to the exercise service for (automatic) regrading. (Normal exercises could be regraded from the teacher’s inspect submission page.) The LTI protocol does not support any kind regrading initiated by the LMS. However, if the Tool Provider stores the submission data, then it could provide its own regrading functionality that would also send the new results to the LMS via normal replaceResult requests. It depends on the TP whether such functionality is supported. Remember though that the replaceResult requests do not overwrite the previous submissions already stored in A+.

N.B. A+ stores the submission history and uses the best submissions for computing the total points in the course. If an exercise has been faulty and submissions have earned too many points, the submissions must be reset by hand in order to remove the incorrect points since LTI exercises do not support automatic regrading.

Warning

LTI exercises have limitations for tracking the number of submissions and the submission time. This is relevant when strict deadlines and submission limits are used. Since the Basic Outcomes Service does not explicitly include these data fields, A+ can not track them completely accurately. If the Tool Provider sends a replaceResult request to A+ for each submission and the requests are sent quickly without delay at the time the student uploads the submission, then A+ may track the correct number of submissions and the recorded submission times do not differ much from the real submission times.

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